Hardwood problems afoot when floors are poorly installed

Hardwood floors are more popular than ever in new construction, and with good reason. They offer buyers versatility and a rich, natural look. With proper installation and care, they are a healthy, durable flooring option.

So why are new homeowners constantly complaining about the condition of their hardwood floors? If professional standards for quality and installation aren’t met, the beautiful hardwood floors buyers have been imagining can turn into lasting headaches.

Here are a few things to look out for.

Quality. Hardwood flooring must be of sufficient quality to be used as a walking surface in a residential setting, typically a “shop-grade” (clear) or “No. 1 grade” hardwood. A shop-grade product will be free of knots and completely smooth once professionally installed and underfoot. No. 1 grade will have an occasional knot or irregularity along the grain. If the irregularity results in an open surface, the board should be discarded and a new board installed in its place.

Any hardwood floor finish – any floor finish for that matter – with gouges, dips, nicks or cuts represents a danger to the homeowner and should not be accepted.

Repairs. Irregularities in hardwood floors cannot be successfully repaired with wood flooring putty. As the floors expand and contract, the putty will expand and contract at a different rate, causing it to separate from the natural material that surrounds it. The putty then becomes hazardous and can cut your feet. Do not accept hardwood floors that have been puttied to maintain surface integrity.

Installation below grade. Hardwood floors are not recommended for installation below grade, including in finished basements. Just last week, one of our inspectors completed a walkthrough of a basement area, which the agent-owner was selling as a living room, and found it deficient.

The inspector discovered an area of about nine square feet that was full of water in the basement “living room.” The entire floor surface of approximately 1,000 square feet was covered with select red oak. The developer was using a “shop vac” to remove the water, so that he could install the hardwood. Much of this floor area would eventually need to be removed and reinstalled in order to meet the standards of the Professional Oak Flooring Manufacturers Association.

During our second inspection of the space it was noted that the hardwood had been installed improperly. The Harwood Owners Manufacturers Association (HOMA) specifies the extraordinary standards by which flooring can be installed below grade, including precise moisture control measures and unique sub-floor systems.

Vapor barriers. Hardwood flooring needs to be installed over a vapor barrier in cold weather climates. Failure to install an appropriate vapor barrier will expose the wood to condensation at its lowest surface, leading to “crowning” of the underside and cupping of the finished floor surface. Look for “tar paper” or “red rosin” paper or a plastic sheet (polyethylene) below every hardwood floor.

Acclimation. HOMA requires that hardwood flooring be brought to job sites only after painted walls are dry. The hardwood must be separated from its bundles and stacked one board atop another for a week to 10 days before installation. Once the lumber has acclimated to the environment (come to an ambient humidity level of less than 8 percent), it can be installed.

A savvy homebuyer could purchase an inexpensive moisture meter from the local hardware store for about $30 and bring it with him to check the moisture content of the flooring before installation. If it’s greater than 8 percent or if the paint has not yet been applied, the hardwood should not go down. Common sense tells you why. Wet hardwood floors shrink as they dry, leaving large and sometimes dangerous gaps between pieces.

These tips are only indirectly referred to in the Chicago Building Code. The code calls for minimum professional workmanship standards to be applied to systems and components during construction. HOMA presents this standard, and so do other organizations. The Chicago code, like any in the country, is not comprehensive enough to cover every single application of every product in the marketplace, and so products are covered generally by the “professional workmanship” standard. Unfortunately, too many developers and contractors lose sight of these standards and leave homeowners with problems underfoot.

Thomas Corbett is president of Tomacor, Inc. a professional property consulting company specializing in commercial and residential property inspections and expert witness work.

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